How do you keep the Christmas spirit and help save the planet, too?
It's not easy. After all, Christmas is about waste and excess. It is not respectful to Mother Earth. 'Tis the season when we eat too much, drink too much and spend too much on useless gifts for people we don't even like too much. As you unwrap that video camera pen from Hammacher Schlemmer, it will no doubt occur to you that we all have way more stuff than we need. No wonder we feel so guilty!
What we need is a virtuous, low-carbon, guilt-free holiday experience that is kind to Mother Earth. With that in mind, here are some tips that even Al Gore would approve of.
Gifts for her: Forget the white gold Tiffany key necklace ($1,200). If you really want to warm her heart, give her a box of Red Wrigglers ($125). It can fit right under the sink. These frisky little critters will thrive on your organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee grounds. They make perfect household pets. They don't bite, they don't shed, and they are very quiet. Who needs gold and diamonds when you've got Red Wrigglers to produce homemade compost that will be the envy of your friends?
Gifts for your son: Boys will be boys, and it's hard to deprive them of Grand Theft Auto and other video games. This year, try choosing ones that are less violent and encourage socially responsible thinking. We recommend Food Force, a game created by the United Nations World Food Program in which players act as aid workers and face the difficulties of delivering food to needy parts of the world.
Gifts for your daughter: Instead of a stuffed animal, get her a real one to donate to impoverished villagers in Africa. Goats are a popular choice. Cuddly, cute and only $35.
Gifts for your best friend: The Global Warming Mug ($10.49) ingeniously shows the world heating up and land mass disappearing under rising oceans when you fill it with hot liquid, according to Salon. You only have to use it 294 times to make it more eco-friendly than drinking out of paper cups.
Gifts for your grandchildren: Be aware that the vast majority of toys are a minefield of moral and health hazards. Their prices often fail to reflect the hidden environmental and social costs of their production, notes Ethical Consumer magazine. According to one foreign-labour watchdog, the U.S.-based National Labor Committee, even Sesame Street 's Ernie is made in a Chinese sweatshop, where underage workers are forced to work long hours under horrid conditions. (It doesn't say where Bert comes from.)
Many common toys are also a health hazard. They are made with PVC, and may contain toxic additives such as phthalates, lead, cadmium and mercury. If you don't want to run the risk of poisoning the little tots, stick with wooden toys made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainable forests, preferably in developing nations, that are managed by small worker-owned co-operatives established with the aim of alleviating poverty and empowering workers.
Closer to home, another option for your eco-conscious little one is the Green Toys Recycling Truck, made in the United States from 100-per-cent recycled plastic milk containers. She'll have a blast sorting bottles, cans and paper as she learns recycling basics.
Wrapping paper: Commercial wrapping paper is wasteful and expensive. Wrap your ethically thoughtful gifts in old rags, instead. You can also use plain brown paper (undyed with toxins), or make your own organic paper from banana fibre.
Old newspapers are a good choice, too. Clip and save your favourite columns for a decorative touch that's both informative and entertaining. If every family wrapped just three gifts this way, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
The tree: Before you get a tree, consider the place of origin, method of production, components, chemicals used in growing or producing it, and disposal. An artificial tree may seem like a good choice because it keeps for years. But it's made from petroleum products and, like toys, may well be full of unhealthy carcinogens.
The U.S.-based Children's Health Environmental Coalition warns that fake trees "may shed lead-laced dust." So if you have an artificial tree, keep children away from it. Do not vacuum the dust, or you may create an inhalation danger. And if you touch it by mistake, wash your hands right away.
Real Christmas trees are a renewable resource. But they are wasteful, and most come from industrial monoculture tree farms that use pesticides. (So much for biodiversity!) If you want a natural, organic tree, you can always pick one up at our place in the country. (We have lots!)
On the other hand, why kill a living tree if you can rent one? For just $135, an enterprising tree farmer will bring you a tree in a pot, then take it back again after Christmas to the country, where it will grow up to be big and strong.
One downside of a tree, real or fake, is the carbon cost of transportation. If that's an issue for you, follow the example of Vicki Hird, senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth. She cuts one out of cardboard and gets her kids to paint it green. Almost zero footprint! And if you insist on having lights, make sure to use the energy-efficient LED bulbs. As a bonus, the duds can be fashioned into charming Christmas brooches.
Christmas dinner: According to Britain's Environment Agency, a typical Christmas dinner made from imported ingredients travels more than 24,000 miles, or once around the globe. You can do better. Buy a local free-range bird or, better still, shoot your own wild, genetically unenhanced turkey with a bow and arrow. A bit dry and stringy, to be sure, but it's by no means an endangered species. I can find you some. Turnip pudding makes a good, locally sourced accompaniment.
Visiting the relatives: To cut down on carbon miles, use your Webcam, bike, or ride the bus. If your relatives live out of town - or, better still, a plane ride away - it is clearly immoral to visit them. Sure, it may feel like a hardship not to spend time with your idiot brother-in-law and his awful kids. But, remember, the greatest gift of all is the one we give to Mother Earth.